On Saturday night a person was hit and killed while trying to cross Southeast Powell Boulevard. According to a Portland Police statement, it happened at SE 29th and the victim was an adult male. Not a lot of details are known at this point, but the police say the vehicle was some sort of SUV.
This was the second pedestrian fatality in this same general area in the span of one month. On October 1st, 34-year-old Ryan Dickenson was hit and killed by a driver while trying to cross Powell on foot just a bit east of 29th.
This is the 54th traffic fatality so far this year, which puts us on pace for another record high. Since 1996 we’ve only had 50 or more road deaths four times and three of them were in the last three years. The 21 pedestrian fatalities we’ve had so far in 2021 is more than we’ve had since before 1996.
The location where these two people were killed in October is a typical urban arterial cross-section. It has five lanes — two general purpose lanes and one center turn lane. The speed limit is 35 mph. Powell is owned and operated by the State of Oregon as Highway 26.
Since 2010 there have been eight deaths on the 10-block stretch of Powell Blvd between 29th and Cesar Chavez Blvd (39th). The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is well aware of the safety issues here (they conducted a Safety Audit in 2013), but so far countermeasures have failed to directly address the main problem: deadly cars and the people who drive them.
In 2019 ODOT spent $4.6 million on the Powell Blvd Safety Project which aimed to “increase safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motorists” on the section between 20th and 34th. The project included: three new flashing beacon signs, new striping, a few new ADA-compliant curb ramps, better lighting, tree removal, and so on.
The issue on inner Powell is that the way ODOT manages arterials makes them simply incompatible with human life. And where we have rapid development and increasing amounts of humans living, working, and using these streets, we also have an increased risk of death and injury. At this location near 29th there’s a remodeled McDonald’s restaurant and Starbucks, a brew pub, a high school track, a Motel 6, a new Target store, and many other destinations.
Trimming back trees and brightening street lights allows ODOT to say they’re doing a “safety project”, but it’s really just busywork when the threat — the 38,000 cars and trucks that zoom through here everyday — remains absolutely unimpeded.
There’s also a large homeless encampment that has increased foot traffic in the area. Many people who’ve been killed by drivers in Portland were likely people living in camps adjacent to busy roads. According to Oregon Walks’ Fatal Pedestrian Crash Report, people living on the street are much more likely to be hit and killed by drivers than the rest of the population. No road or law enforcement agencies keep track of how many victims were houseless at the time of their death, but perhaps they should start so we can better assess the safety risks faced by this population and begin to take measures to mitigate them.
The future of Powell might be different if it were owned and managed by the City of Portland. Metro has ranked Powell the top candidate for jurisdictional transfer. In 2017 the Oregon Legislature granted funding to ODOT to conduct a study to identify projects needed to bring the road up to a “state of good repair” prior to making the switch. The Inner Powell State of Good Repair Study found it would take about $31 million to pay for necessary updates before PBOT would be able to take ownership from ODOT.
Until someone does something about the deadly potential of the vehicles that dominate SE Powell Blvd and the people who operate them, all we can do is hope that the next victim isn’t ourselves or someone we know and love.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
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